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PORT CITY PROFILE (Part 2 of 2): Chittagong, Bangladesh

Photograph: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis

PortandTerminal.com, July 17, 2019

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at Chittagong, home to Bangladesh’s largest and notoriously corrupt port. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at another aspect of Chittagong’s maritime industry – its infamous shipbreaking yards.

Faujdarhat: Where Ships go to Die

The Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard is located in Fauzdarhat, Bangladesh along the 11-mile Sitakunda coastal strip, 12 miles north-west of Chittagong

Faujdarhat, 11 miles (18 km) northwest of Chittagong, is where Bangladesh’s ship-breaking takes place. It’s home to the world’s largest ship breaking centre and employs over 200,000 Bangladeshis. It also produces 20% of Bangladesh’s much-needed steel.

Bangladesh needs cheap steel

About 20% of Bangladesh’s steel comes from its ship breaking activity

Ships that end up in Fauzdarhat are broken down bit by bit, usually by hand, and stripped of every last bit of value. 

Ninety percent of a ship consists of steel. In Bangladesh, the steel that is harvested when a ship is broken up is recycled and used for construction. About 20% of Bangladesh’s steel comes from its ship breaking activity. Ship-breaking provides a cheap source of raw material that the country needs desperately.

In exchange for cheap steel, Bangladesh offers cheap labour with little or no regulation and oversight about how the workers are treated or the environmental impact of the work that they do. There are over 20 ship-breaking yards along a 16-mile coastline in Fauzdarhat.

Photo: Fauzdarhat, Bangladesh coastline is home to over 20 ship-breaking yards (Google Maps)

“Over twenty ship-breaking yards dot the 16 miles of coastline. It is an industrial wasteland of epic proportions, where thousands of workers are forced to scratch their meagre existence out of these hulking steel ruins, working with rudimentary protection, risking injury and illness, poisoned by toxic fumes and exposure to asbestos and other hazardous materials.”

Atlas Obscura, Chittagong Ship-breaking Yards

Dirty, deadly and dangerous work

No one works at Chittagong’s ship-breaking yards because they want to. The work is poorly paid, toxic and dangerous. People work there because they have no choice.

Ship-breaking is incredibly dangerous when not managed responsibly, which mostly, it isn’t. It kills people and poisons the environment.

“Ship-breaking, as carried out on the tidal beaches of Chittagong, is characterised as one of the most hazardous jobs in the world by the ILO”

International Labour Organisation (ILO)

Any ship may contain various amounts of hazardous materials within its structure.

Injury and death

Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The working conditions at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong are well known. It is the usual story. In order to get the ships, the Bangladeshi shipbreakers pay the best rates to the ship-owners. To retain their profits, they pay the workers the lowest rates in the world and provide virtually no safety. Workers die and suffer injuries on a regular basis. Some receive modest compensation, others don’t. According to workers, many deaths are simply not registered with the bodies being ‘disappeared’ by the owners. Child labor and exploitation at the yards is a major problem as well.

Asbestos, heavy metals, PCBs and more

Ships when broken up also release heavy metals, PCBs and a whole host of other toxic chemicals

Asbestos is one of the most common and most hazardous materials found onboard ships. Asbestos is used, particularly in engine rooms, because of its thermal insulation and fire-resistant properties and is sandwiched between steel plates in the walls or in the doors. When extracted, it breaks into fine fibres, which can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. If inhaled, the fibres can lead to fatal diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, the symptoms of which are not apparent for many years.

Ships when broken up also release heavy metals, PCBs and a whole host of other toxic chemicals that contaminate the water, beaches and sicken the workers and their local communities.

The ship-breaking industry

Most ship-breaking, aka Beaching, takes place in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

More than 800 large ships are broken up each year, the vast majority on Asian beaches.

Owners can earn an extra $1m to $4m per ship when selling to Asian yards via cash buyers, instead of opting for recycling yards with higher standards.

“No one forces the industry to send ships to be dismantled there. They choose to send them”

Ingvild Jenssen, director of Shipbreaking Platform

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform estimates that a big shipping company like the Swiss MSC, which has sent at least 80 vessels to Alang in the past decade, has made €300 million in profits by choosing beaches over sound shipbreaking facilities.

Positive steps internationally

The Norwegian Government Pension Fund has over US$1 trillion in assets, including 1.3% of global stocks and shares, making it the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

In 2018, Scandinavian pension funds the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global and KLP divested from four shipping companies due to their beaching (ship-breaking) practices. The exclusions were made public and with written explanations. Their reasons for divesting were due to the horrific human rights and environmental impact the companies that they dropped were implicated in.

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